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Essential Politics: One week, two Americas as a new president takes office

With the U.S. Capitol in the background, a lock on anti-scaling security fencing is seen on Saturday in Washington.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

Fifty-four years ago this spring, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Stanford University to offer a portrait of the nation that perhaps only he could cast in such stark but important terms.

“There are literally two Americas,” King told the audience, describing one as a bountiful land of opportunity and the other as a barren wasteland of poverty and hopelessness.

“In a sense, the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children. Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies. As we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams.”

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King focused on the systemic plight of Black Americans but acknowledged that others, in lines drawn by ethnicity and poverty, also were residents of the “other” America.

Any number of politicians went on to borrow King’s thesis to fit their own electoral platforms, a version of which appeared as the platform of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ presidential run in 2004. That the imagery has endured — hope and prosperity, despair and decay — may say something about the enduring paradox of a nation founded on egalitarian principles.

The words of King seem especially important on this national day for remembering his life and legacy as a bitterly divided nation prepares to change leaders — a transfer of power in the midst of a devastating pandemic, a watershed moment in racial justice and, just 12 days ago, a frightening insurrection of citizens inspired by the words of an American president.

Portions of King’s 1967 speech feel especially prophetic.

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“And I’m absolutely convinced that the forces of ill-will in our nation, the extreme rightists in our nation, have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill,” King told the Stanford audience. “And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time.”

A half-century later, the nation struggles with any number of conflicting realities — including reality and truth itself. And in the aftermath of an acrimonious election and a citizenry that seems to live in at least two Americas — of pain and perception, for starters — the focus turns to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who will assume the two highest jobs in the land in just 48 hours.

An inauguration in Fortress Washington

Ratified 88 years ago next week, the 20th Amendment requires the term of the president and vice president to begin on Jan. 20. We’ll leave it to historians to decide whether any previous inauguration was fraught with the kind of tension looming over Wednesday’s ceremony when Biden and Harris will take the oath of office.

And yet the incoming vice president believes there will still be time for celebration. “I believe that there is great joy among people who recognize the historic nature of this election,” Harris said in an interview with The Times. “I do believe that people will find a moment to experience that joy.”

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But the soon-to-be vice president acknowledged the tough times in which she and the president-elect will take office. And the physical surroundings of Wednesday’s ceremony will be a reflection of what happened on that spot just two weeks earlier.

In the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, prosecutors are now alleging that some rioters planned to “capture and assassinate” lawmakers and that far-right extremists have not backed down. “Since the January 6 insurrection, violent online rhetoric regarding the inauguration has increased,” federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing last week.

Some of those charged with crimes during the unprecedented attack have said they were just following the instructions they received from President Trump, including comments made at the rally earlier that day that records indicate was partly organized by some with close connections to the president.

And a few of those charged have made it clear they expect him to come to their defense over the next 48 hours.

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“I would like a pardon from the president of the United States,” said Jenna Ryan, a Texas real estate agent charged in the storming of the Capitol, in an interview with CBS News late last week. “I think that we all deserve a pardon. I’m facing a prison sentence. I think that I do not deserve that.”

The nation’s capital is not the only seat of government that resembles a fortress as the week begins. An FBI warning of possible armed protests at all 50 state capitols starting Saturday through Wednesday has led to heightened security measures at statehouses throughout the nation. For those of us in Sacramento, both the state Capitol and a variety of government buildings — the headquarters of the California Department of Justice, the state Treasurer’s office, the courts and more — are now being patrolled by members of the National Guard.

Through the weekend, things were thankfully quiet in California’s capital city and in state capitals across the nation.

Our Times journalists in Washington and Los Angeles will answer your questions about all things Inauguration Day on Wednesday in a live chat, which will begin an hour before the ceremony begins.

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The 45th president’s silence

Never known to be silent, President Trump has kept a low profile in the 12 days since the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill and his subsequent suspension from all of the major social media platforms.

Times staff writer Eli Stokols reports that a good number of governing duties have fallen to Vice President Mike Pence, while the president envisions a grand send-off on Wednesday. Here’s how Stokols describes what sources have told him about the likely event:

“It would begin with a throng of cheering, flag-waving staffers and supporters to see him off on the White House’s South Lawn, according to a person familiar with the planning, and continue to a more formal ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, featuring a red carpet, military band, color guard and 21-gun salute. He would make his final Air Force One flight to Florida, to take up residence at Mar-a-Lago, his West Palm Beach, Fla., estate.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s staunchest allies insist there’s no reason — or legal precedent — to hold an impeachment trial in the Senate once the 45th president’s term expires on Wednesday, a position not surprisingly rejected by Democrats.

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And columnist Doyle McManus offers this advice to Democrats: Let things cool a bit and see how Republican senators feel about their president after a thorough investigation into the Capitol insurrection.

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The promise of a vaccination acceleration

President-elect Joe Biden has made it clear that he intends to push hard to speed up the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine doses across the nation.

On Friday, Biden promised a far-reaching approach that would include funding for community vaccination centers and other ways to expand access to shots, invoking the Defense Production Act to increase the manufacturing of vaccines and supplies.

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“The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure so far,” Biden said. “You have my word: We will manage the hell out of this operation.”

In California, there’s been significant confusion in the wake of Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s announcement that anyone 65 or older now could be vaccinated — a welcome announcement except that a number of communities aren’t anywhere close to being able to accommodate that larger group of residents.

In short, the state needs a lot of vaccine doses and a lot better coordination and messaging.

National lightning round

— Behind computer screens on the West Coast, in the Midwest, and as far away as Australia, digital sleuths scour the internet in search of photos and videos of the insurrection, hoping to identify the most violent protesters.

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— In his first hours as president, Biden plans to take executive action to roll back some decisions of his predecessor and to address the pandemic.

— Trump tried to marginalize California. He failed. Now, with Biden and Democrats taking power, no state is more influential in setting a policy agenda.

— Twitter on Sunday temporarily suspended the account of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican from Georgia who has expressed racist views and support for QAnon conspiracy theories online.

— In taking charge of a Pentagon battered by leadership churn, the Biden administration will look to one holdover as a source of military continuity: Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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— The nation is facing a shortage of protective gear as anxiety over civil unrest has sent demand surging.

Today’s essential California politics

— As an army of investigators tries to pin down the scope of unemployment benefit fraud in California, the head of a security firm working for the state is warning that payments of fraudulent claims could more than double the $4 billion previously estimated.

— California legislators will again consider a ban on cosmetic surgery for small children born with atypical genitalia under a bill introduced Friday.

— The California Democratic Party is facing backlash after referring to the campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom as a “coup” nearly a week after the violent pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

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— Several app-based drivers and one of the nation’s largest labor unions are taking to the courts to dispute Proposition 22, posing the first legal challenge to California’s voter-approved law allowing gig companies to keep treating their workers as independent contractors.

— A judge allowed the San Diego County district attorney’s office to move to reclaim jurisdiction over several charges filed in Los Angeles connected to a violent string of crimes that left two people dead, a rebuke of newly elected L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s policies.

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